Beijing: It was a photo that raised eyebrows among the small circle of academics who recognised the Chinese guests of former foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr.
Recorded for posterity in the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily, to the former politician's left was a Tibetan Buddhist thangka, an intricate traditional painting on a silk scroll. On its left, Zhu Weiqun, chairman of China's top religious affairs committee and critic-in-chief of the Dalai Lama. And on his left, in a resplendent golden robe, was Tudeng Kezhu, a "living buddha" who has described Communist Party policies in Tibet as an "excellent system that can win over people's hearts".
"Why is Bob Carr standing next to this guy [Zhu]?" was the immediate reaction of James Leibold, a Chinese ethnic policy expert at Melbourne's La Trobe University.
These days, Mr Carr is a professor and director of the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, which got off the ground thanks to a $1.8 million gift from prolific political donor and Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo.
But Mr Zhu, Dr Leibold said, is a polarising figure at the forefront of party-led efforts to scale back minorities' rights through the promotion of monolingualism, secularism and population controls – at odds with the "values of multiculturalism and liberalism that we [Australia] stand for as a nation".
"By accepting $1.8 million from Huang Xiangmo and making him the chairman of the board, ACRI (and by extension UTS) feel obligated to not only host a controversial figure like Zhu Weiqun, but also unwittingly function as a propaganda outlet for the Chinese Communist Party," Dr Leibold said, referring to the People's Daily coverage of the meeting, which emphasised the high political office Professor Carr used to hold.
"It just goes to show how you can get into these compromised positions."
The political cachet in generating positive publicity back home for Mr Zhu and his delegation sheds light on at least one aspect of Mr Huang's involvement with ACRI, where he chairs the board.
Mr Zhu would go on to tell reporters at the Chinese consulate in Sydney that the Dalai Lama was a "double-dealer with zero credibility" while warning that any Australian leader who dared to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate would "damage" bilateral relations.
Mr Zhu's other public engagement besides visiting ACRI and the Chinese consulate while in Sydney, was to meet the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, a powerful patriotic association that proactively asserts the Communist Party's position against independence in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Mr Huang is also president of the council.
"The council upholds China's sovereign rights," Mr Huang told Mr Zhu, according to the council's website. "We have made unremitting efforts and positive contributions in opposing independence in Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet."
Long-serving academics in Australia's tight-knit China-watching community have expressed concerns Mr Huang's direct funding of ACRI sends a message to China that Australian research agendas could be influenced through funding.
It comes as universities face the economic realities of a trend towards privatisation and less government funding in tertiary education, and as China, increasingly amassing soft power by leveraging its economic reach, becomes a key source of international students, academic collaboration and research funding. While seemingly beneficial at first sight, university management often have a poor understanding of their Chinese benefactors and the complex nexus between the Communist Party and private business interests, academics say.
"I do think that it's quite unique in Australia, probably in the West, that a university centre funded by a Chinese property tycoon serves as a platform for exclusively positive views about China," said respected sinologist John Fitzgerald, now director of Swinburne University's Asia-Pacific Program in Social Investment and Philanthropy. "This is not normal."
"In my view there's a place in this world for such an entity which tells positive stories about China, but does it belong in a university?"
Through a university spokesman, Professor Carr said that the "request for a meeting" with Mr Zhu "came via the Chinese consulate in Sydney", which he accepted.
He said he used the opportunity to "repeat the position of the Australian government that he took as foreign minister, namely, that while Australia recognises Chinese sovereignty over Tibet it supports negotiations towards autonomy and respect for religious rights". Predictably, this was not reflected in the People's Daily's account.
Nor were they reflected on the ACRI website, which says its work is based on a "positive and optimistic view of Australia-China relations" and that it has a "fully independent, academically rigorous and transparent research agenda". Recent research published on its website analyses how fears over China's slowing economic growth is "overblown" and the importance of Chinese tourism to Australia.
"ACRI performs high-quality and extremely important research into the Australia/China relationship," deputy vice-chancellor for research Glenn Wightwick said. "Its value is obvious from the large numbers of sponsors it has attracted, including some of Australia's top corporations. Like all research centres at UTS, the institute has rigorous systems and processes in place to ensure academic freedom and integrity."
Mr Huang told Fairfax Media that he had no input into the day-to-day operation of ACRI, which he hoped would let Australians "understand China more clearly".
He said the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, of which he was president, was active with local charities. "We don't participate in political activities, we just raise our views, and hope for peace."